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Build an Organizational Culture that Deconstructs Silos

By: Guest | July 17, 2012 | 
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Today’s guest post is written by John Trader

Working directly with international markets during the past few years has broadened my perspective on a number of things.

It’s given me the opportunity to learn and understand the structure and nuances of many different business cultures outside of my own.

And I’ve noticed something about the way some companies are built in the U.S.

I realized individualism, one of the fundamental principles our culture is built on could possibly be the largest impediment to deconstructing the silos that reemerged following our most recent economic downturn.

In other words, the focus on independence in the U.S. vs. interdependence in other foreign cultures can often be a serious roadblock to opening doors that foster communication integration – a factor many believe to be the key to success in the modern economy.

In the early 1980’s, Geert Hofsetdee, a Dutch researcher in the fields of organizational studies, organizational culture, cultural economics, and management developed a research model by aggregating individuals as societal units to determine values on which cultures vary.

Although somewhat controversial, his conclusions were that some cultures (like the U.S.) see the individual as the most important being and reward individual achievement while valuing the uniqueness of the individual as a key pillar of collective values.

Conversely, and from what I have observed directly from working with other cultures, is the collectivist mentality which places the views, needs, and goals of a group as a priority over where people define themselves in relation to others.

Most of these cultures focus on cooperation, not competition, as a strategic business objective. This is very evident in the way they act, speak, and cultivate their business alliances. Very rarely do I run into an organization that is hampered by silos or clogged by the inability to openly communicate.

An article written in Vanity Fair, called Microsoft’s Lost Decade,” describes a corporate culture based on a concept called “stack ranking.” It’s a concept that “forces every business unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor…” You know: The 10/80/10 rule.

Stack ranking effectively stifled innovation and is arguably one of the main reasons the company slipped and faltered while Apple and Google flourished because they were built on a culture of open communication and unbridled creativity.

That’s a pretty compelling case study  on how encouraging a competitive, individualistic business environment virtually crumbled a once feared titan of the industry, don’t you think?

Assuming my theory is correct and moving more towards collectivism would help to break down silos, how do we shift our business culture to be less individualistic? The answer may be far more difficult than it appears. It just may lie in how we are raised:

In a psychological experiment conducted by renowned social psychology expert Richard Nisbett, comments from both American and East Asian students were recorded after they were shown an underwater scene. The American students focused their comments on the individual fish in the scene and the East Asian students discussed more holistic elements of the scene including details of the landscape as well as the fish.

“East Asians focus on relationships while Westerners tend to see isolated objects rather than the connections between them.”

Based on this and other similar studies about the differences between American and foreign cultures, it’s feasible to surmise that effective ways to curb individualism in American business culture need to start when we are young.

What are your thoughts on individualism in American business culture? Can you share some of your observations of the factors that may lead to business silos?

John Trader is a public relations and marketing manager with M2SYS Technology , a recognized industry leader in biometric identity management technology. He has PR and marketing experience working in the financial, publishing, non-profit, entertainment, sales training, and technology sectors. Currently living in Atlanta, he is an avid NHL fan and high school lacrosse coach. He also blogs over at PRBreakfastClub.com. You can follow him on Twitter at John_Trader1.

59 comments
MartijnLinssen
MartijnLinssen

@markwschaefer too bad he couldn't spell Hofstede

JohnMTrader
JohnMTrader

@cruze24 Thanks for sharing the @SpinSucks post!

jelenawoehr
jelenawoehr

Great post, and I love the overall concept of learning from other cultures! I think diversity in all forms results in stronger teams and better decision-making. Individualists bring something to the table, but a room full of them means shortsightedness, tunnel vision, and competition. I don't like single-gender, single-race, or single-culture teams as much as I like diverse ones. If you have the opportunity to learn from multiple people, why pick a whole host of them who are likely to say the same things in different ways?

 

I have to quibble with the Microsoft example, though. I don't think stack ranking created a competitive and individualist business environment. A really competitive environment would rank people based on their actual performance. Competitiveness is most effective in business when you can channel it into competing with your own best performance, first and foremost. A 10-80-10 system doesn't allow the 80% in the middle to beat their personal bests, so it actually stifles their competitive instincts by convincing them that even continuous improvement won't result in a win as long as the manager's favorites are still on the team. If Microsoft wants to stick with individualism but ditch the forced ratios, my favorite option would be to abandon annual performance reviews altogether (statistically, they do nothing for performance in most companies) and institute continuous feedback with on the spot rewards.

JohnMTrader
JohnMTrader

@cookerlypr Thanks for sharing the post - hope y'all are doing well.

RebeccaTodd
RebeccaTodd

Say thanks for this John!  I love Geert's work ( I even have his app!). I was very disillusioned the other day by a post on the HBR blog stating that fueling internal competition amongst your staff would provide positive growth in customer service in restaurants.  This kind of thinking completely baffles me! In the restaurant context, the happiest customers I ever had was when I stopped caring about my individual return and shares my whole section with another server.  Then we were truly there for the customers- running any food that hit the window immediately and responding to any customer needs regardless of where they sat.  Not only did customers notice, they thanked us for truly committing to providing the best service and not "hogging tables" to ourselves.  Funny thing- our average tip went up by almost 10%. Best money I've ever made and all thanks to embracing a collectivist mindset. 

JohnMTrader
JohnMTrader

@jocmbarnett Thanks for sharing the post John.

JohnMTrader
JohnMTrader

@nghannoum @marketing_memes Thanks for sharing the @spinsucks blog post!

jamienotter
jamienotter

I think American individualism has contributed to the widespread adoption of cultures that over-value central control. This ties to silos (smaller containers of centralized control), and it probably stems from the early stage of a company when it was run by the founders. There is no question that the founder has total authority, and that evolves into systems where we put too much power in the center and let potential languish in the periphery.

 

I think it also contributes to a flawed understanding of leadership as an individual capacity, rather than as the capacity of the system to shape its future. 

jeffespo
jeffespo

@jamienotter we all love silos ;)

alanbr82
alanbr82

@ginidietrich I always think of my days at Armstrong when you mention Organizational Silos.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

This goes hand-in-hand with what I've been exploring lately as it relates to time management, getting it all done, and having it all. The idea that North Americans are out for themselves, while other cultures are more team-based is ridiculous. But when you tie it with the fact that other cultures are more happy than we are, it kind of doesn't make sense that we keep doing things the way we're doing them.

rdopping
rdopping

Interesting point of view John and not to difficult to experience in NA. I am from Canada but I don't think it matters because our business attitudes are like closely tethered to that of the US. Is it bacause we are taught  to seek success as individuals right form the get go (ala the American Dream)? Maybe.

 

Building a team based environment where it is the collective that serves a purpose borders on a political stance that most North Americans may still have difficulty swallowing. But it works when you can get the buy in. I have a team that I like to think is leading the way for our firm with this attitude and we are successful doing it but it takes constant work to keep it running smoothly. 

Hajra
Hajra

When I was studying organizational psychology in college (I am from India), we studied about the concept of we before I in the east, and I before we in the West. Though I agree with what you suggest here, do you think  a focus on we before I might have anything to do with the degradation of the employee in terms of career growth. One thing is sure that when people work as a team, though it is productive, the individualism of some of the team members might get a little neglected. Some might be able to prove themselves better when working alone, while others feel they are more productive when working in a team. But I keep thinking about this. I met a few patients (when I was counseling) who told me about "lost" they feel because they had to think more about the we rather than the I. Do you think it might block an individuals career path?

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

I thought the Microsoft example was especially interesting! I do see what you mean about the different philosophies, culturally. I lived in France for a year when I was much younger and it really opened my eyes to other societies. They live and think very differently as does every culture, of course. The fact that we, as Americans, rarely speak other languages, and small things like the fact that we don't accept Canadian currency at the register when Canadians accept ours, make me realize that our culture is very egocentric.

Audioname
Audioname

John, Thanks for highlighting the subtle cultural differences and how it impacts an organization in the long run. My experience is that when people from different cultures work together they are so focused on 'getting things done' that they miss out of relationship building...until it is too late. This might get the short term results but misses the longer term goal of building one unified team.

Krista
Krista

Great post, John-- I'm big on organizational cultures and how they affect the construct of companies (or teams for that matter). You raise a good point with the psychology behind why American employees do what they do. The idea of American Individualism definitely explains some of the underpinning reasons why companies might be more motivated to encourage the individual over the collective.  I can relate to this as my former corporate experience rewarded the senior staff member who brought in the most new business with a sizable bonus...that never quite trickled down...

 

Either way, this gives us lots to think about when approaching organizational culture and what it might really take to break free of the silo structure.